Context counts when it comes to appreciating the newest album by Bandung band Pure Saturday.
In 1996, Pure Saturday released its debut self-titled record, a collection of alternative pop songs that became a soundtrack for the teens of Indonesia’s big cities. For a while you couldn’t get away from it; if a stereo system was around, one of the record’s eight songs would likely be blaring from it.
In an era of otherwise cheesy ballads, perhaps it was lead singer Suar Nasution’s grasp of unconventional Indonesian prose that enamored listeners, or the crestfallen but celebratory songs. Whatever it was, Pure Saturday achieved a familiar sound in a scrupulous cantata, offering catchy music that never felt cheap.
Then the band withered away. Its sophomore record, 1999’s “Utopia,” was released by the era’s reigning major label, Aquarius Musikindo, but did not impress. With intricate arrangements and less immediate melodies, it left many former fans cold and bewildered, and the label released it with essentially no promotion.
The band, often seen as among the country’s first generation of indie acts, disappeared briefly from the music scene, as its lead singer walked away not long after “Utopia.”
With a new singer, Satria N.B., the group returned with 2005’s pleasing but middling “Elora.” They followed that up in 2007 with “Time for a Change, Time to Move On,” which further helped the band regain its footing.
That’s plenty of history to read into one band, but context is essential to understand why Pure Saturday’s latest record, “Grey,” feels like such a turnaround. While not perfect by any means, it finds the group coming to terms with its strengths and limitations. It showcases an eagerness to musically blow people’s minds, a conviction the past two records lacked.
“Grey” almost completely abandons the band’s melodious track record. Nary a song on the album rolls out radio-ready tunefulness, save for the driving pop of “Starlight,” which at six-plus minutes would hardly qualify as “single” material.
The record focuses on a sonic aural experience through quasi art-rock arrangements and instrumental deliveries. For better or worse — mostly for the better — it is completely unrestrained and unlike anything the band has ever released.
The record opens with “Intro,” a glaring misstep in the form of an edited recording of Johann Strauss II’s “Centennial Waltzes.”
This would serve as an odd beginning for any record, and it made me feel as if I was missing out on some inside joke.
Fortunately, the first song jumps in after a minute. “Horsemen” sounds like a Yes power ballad, with high-pitched harmonies, galloping guitar histrionics and fusion-like bass lines. Reminiscent of 1970s arena rock, it proclaims: “But I got to carry on those words/They’ve forgotten how to treat the words and said ‘Hey, c’mon, show your brave man side.’ ”
“Lighthouse,” “Musim Berakhir” (“Season Ends,” the only Indonesian title on the album) and “Passepartout” are the closest to the band’s British pop-infused beginnings, though understated introductions here make way for arrangement twists.
“Passepartout,” whose title is taken from a character in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days,” starts hushed before leaping into what can only be described as alternative world music.
The fusion of progressive and world music involves instrument complexity that will turn off some fans — and to be fair, the old rock sound of some guitar sessions and a few arrangement missteps make that a fair accusation. But with “Grey,” Pure Saturday clearly sets out to impress its more adventurous listeners. The record is an ambitious undertaking that may not succeed on all counts, but it never bores.
Pure Saturday ‘Grey’
Released by Labyrinth Records
Available in music stores now